Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie Review: The King's Speech

The King's Speech (2010)
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce
Directed By: Tom Hooper

It has, arguably, been a slow year for film. Although there have been a few great ones along the way, I've found it tough to come up with a top ten list for the end of the year. Considering the Oscars will, yet again, announce 10 Best Picture nominees, a handful of those films will get in simply to fill out that list.

The King's Speech has had buzz surrounding it since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The premise is simple enough and, on paper, doesn't sound like it would make for epic historical cinema.

Set in the late-1930s, with the ominous (and, at the time, largely misunderstood) rise of Nazism in the background, Prince Albert (Colin Firth) struggles to overcome a speech impediment he's had since childhood. His debilitating stammer has led to countless public embarrassments; however, a long line of "doctors" have been unable to find a cure. After the death of his father, George V (Michael Gambon) and the surprise abdication by his older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), Albert becomes King George VI and is thrust into the public domain at a time when Great Britain is on the brink of war and in need of leadership now more than ever. With the help of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), George finds a speech therapist from Australia named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a man with a reputation for unorthodox treatment methods.

Who knew a film focused on the speech therapy of a now-deceased king could make for such compelling drama? Even I had my doubts, going into the film. I worried the film was all hype and wouldn't live up to all of its praise. I'm glad I was wrong.

With the advent of mass communication in the form of the radio, George is expected to rise to the challenge and lead his people, as a united force, against Nazism. This would be no easy task for anyone, experienced or not, let alone someone with a deathly fear of public speaking due to a seemingly incurable speech impediment. George's desire to no longer speak with a pronounced stammer becomes less about helping himself and more about having the clarity and strength to inspire his people into action. He's no longer simply trying to find his own voice, but that of his entire kingdom. When his daughter, Elizabeth, asks him what Hitler is saying in a rousing speech the Royal Family watches on a newsreel, George replies wistfully: "I don't know. But, he seems to be saying it rather well."

Firth is on a hot streak. With The King's Speech coming so soon after his heartbreaking and underrated performance in A Single Man (2009), he is one of the best actors working in the industry today. As George VI, his performance is subtly beautiful. A lesser actor would have chewed the scenery and over-embellished every emotion, yet Firth's polished and nuanced performance adds layers of emotion and character development with professional restraint. The man understands his character and how to properly portray a man on the brink. It is, without a doubt, the finest performance by a male actor this year. Firth makes George VI heroic and brave without simply playing off his disability. Firth works hard to earn the audience's sympathy to the point where, in the climactic speech at the conclusion of the film, you are on the edge of your seat as though watching an action thriller. The scene is so exciting because Firth made it so.

As Lionel, Rush is at his quirky best. He's such a fine actor that he does more than his share in a supporting performance. At times both hilarious and fiercely proud of his work in his field, Lionel provides friendship and emotional support to a king that experienced very little of either growing up. Like his character, Rush provides support for Firth as both Firth's acting equal and for his ability to allow (and help) Firth to shine. Rush's work in The King's Speech is the definition of a supporting performance.

The rest of the cast is just as stellar, with Bonham Carter, Pearce and Gambon all strong in their supporting roles. If nothing else, the film is a genuine performance piece with talent at every turn.

Director Tom Hooper (who last year helmed the wonderful and sadly underrated film, The Damned United) has done a wonderful job of making what could have been a dry concept and turning it into something fascinating. I especially admired the unique framing techniques. The camera had the tendency to be off centre, leaving ample head room above the actors as well as on one side. It gave the film an artistic, indie feel. Most costume dramas tend to focus on beautiful pastoral images to make up for the stuffy, routine indoor shots; however, Hooper and his camera crew gave it a fresh spin.

The King's Speech just might end up being the film to beat during the awards season.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Movie Review: Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy (2010)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, James Frain and Michael Sheen
Directed By: Joseph Kosinski

I had no idea what this film was about, going into it. I was coerced into seeing it. I wanted to see The Fighter, my friends voted for Tron: Legacy. It all came down to a vote and I lost.

The film was, according to my friends, a sequel to a trippy 1982 sci-fi adventure with a 20-something Jeff Bridges. I'd never heard of it. To me, the trailer for the sequel looked like a blue-hued version of Speed Racer. And, really, who actually liked (or even saw) Speed Racer?

However, sometimes going into a film you have absolutely zero desire to see can work to your advantage. I had no preconceived notions, no expectations. I couldn't have cared less whether Tron: Legacy was a great action sequel or a complete dud. Now that I've seen the film, I realize how hard it is to review. As my sister (and countless others) pointed out, critics should not attempt to review action films. But, I'll give it a go.

The premise (and I will try my best to get all the lingo right): Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a "virtual world designer" who went missing more than 20 years ago. During his renewed search for his father, Sam is accidentally pulled into the same computer world as his father. Sam encounters violent Programs, a sexy sidekick named Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and an evil (and younger) digital alter-ego creation of his father named Clu. Sam, his father and Quorra race across a virtual universe (the digital world is referred to as The Grid) in order to return to the real world after defeating Clu (a creepy CGI version of Bridges).

The film, like The Grid itself, is in a state of near-constant gamer warfare. As Clu schemes to steal Flynn's memory disc (something everyone in The Grid has strapped to their backs), he stages gladiator-esque duels between Programs. Clu's intention is to abandon The Grid and travel into the real world to kick human ass, with all of Flynn's genius creations (physically) in hand. Somewhere in the last 20 years, Flynn had lost his power to Clu, who lords over The Grid like an emperor while Flynn has retreated to a temple-like abode away from all the havoc.

Everything is coloured in cold (and eerie) shades of blue, black, white and the occasional orange. The visuals and animation are all excellent. Having computer programs fight one another, with the defeated ones crumbling out of existence, makes for entertaining action sequences. I can't recall having ever seen a film where computer programs faced off against one another by throwing memory discs at each other like Frisbees. My only major qualm, in terms of animation, was the horrible CGI face on Clu. Seeing a younger version of Bridges' face on another actor's body is unnerving and ridiculously phoney looking (and, considering the whole film is essentially CGI and special effects, it should have looked more realistic).

The film is, if nothing else, pure adrenaline. Granted, the premise is a little lacking (having a son go back to rescue his father has a very "been there-done that" quality to it) but many aspects of it still work as an action-packed sci-fi adventure. The cast plays a role in helping Tron: Legacy rise above other mundane films of the genre. Bridges is a great actor and, while this is far from his best work (hearing him say lines like, "You're messing with my Zen thing, man!" made me laugh for the wrong reasons), he seemed to be having a great time and that comes across to the audience. Hedlund and Wilde, on the other hand, are charming as Sam and Quorra, but there's not much else to say beyond that fact.

Two casting choices, in particular, surprised me. James Frain (as Clu's henchman, Jarvis) and Michael Sheen (as the all-knowing Castor) are two excellent English actors who have done much better work in much better films. Seeing Frain as a bald, silver-lipped computer program and Sheen (pictured above) as an all-white merry prankster who looks (and acts) like the love-child of David Bowie and Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) from A Clockwork Orange, was bizarre, to say the least. However, Sheen comes out as the stronger of the two, stealing all of his scenes from the other actors and providing much-needed comic relief. Even in a silly sci-fi movie, he's wonderful.

In the end, my favourite aspect of the film turned out to be the soundtrack, provided entirely by the French electronic duo, Daft Punk. I'm not, by any means, familiar with their work; however, in the context of this film, their musical creations worked perfectly. It added both an ominous and rave-like quality to action sequences that were already pretty trippy to begin with.

Overall, Tron:Legacy was a lot more enjoyable than I expected it to be. Granted, I know nothing about the original film, so I can't say whether or not it was a faithful sequel. It's one of those films where you leave the theatre thinking, "that was cool" before putting it out of your mind almost instantly. A part of me had fun while the other half still wished I'd seen The Fighter instead.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Black Swan (2010)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

We've seen films that have been focused on a protagonist's descent into madness before. But it's never been done quite like director Darren Aronofsky's film, Black Swan.

This was one of the few films I was excited about this year -- from the moment I first saw the trailer, I couldn't wait to see how the two duelling halves of a ballet dancer's mind would pan out under Aronofsky's direction. There's always this reluctance when I'm really excited about a film -- I always wonder if it will live up to the hype and the greatness of its trailer. Thankfully, Black Swan lives up to its rave critical reviews.

This is a very difficult movie to review without giving everything away. For a lack of a better word, the film is completely demented. It's bizarre, twisted, over-the-top and, at times, downright campy. That being said, I loved every minute of it. It's a breath of fresh air amidst the sequels, prequels and romcoms that usually fill the cinema's around this time of year.

What it all comes down to, though, is the performance by Natalie Portman. Without her, Black Swan would have lost a large portion of what makes it work so well. As young dancer, Nina, Portman is so convincing in her role that you literally feel you are witnessing an actual nervous breakdown. Nina works though her gruelling auditions in an attempt to convince both herself and her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), that she can convincingly portray both the ethereal and graceful white swan, Odette, and Odette's dark, sexual and possessive counterpart, Odile, the black swan, in the company's upcoming production of Swan Lake.

I've always found Portman to be a little hit or miss, as an actress. It's hard to believe the same woman who struggled through the Star Wars prequels is now the lead contender for Best Actress in this years Oscar race. Her delicate, innocent and almost childlike portrayal of Nina is heartbreaking as she awkwardly struggles to find her darker, sexualized self. Portman effectively portrays both the light and dark within Nina and, most surprisingly, does a lot of her own ballet dancing in the film. I have nothing but the utmost respect for actors who immerse themselves in research for their roles and it's clear that Portman spent a lot of time preparing for her greatest role yet.

Nina lives in a world of pink pyjamas and teddy bears (her mother, played by Barbara Hershey, still tucks her in at night) in an attempt to move past her dark past of bulimia and a scratching disorder. But with the mounting pressures of the upcoming Swan Lake production and the vicious taunting by Thomas, backup dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) and former ballet queen, Beth (Winona Ryder), results in Nina's violent, sexual and dark hallucinations. Her dark swan is struggling to break through it's pure white exterior.

The Toronto Star movie critic, Peter Howell, made a good point when he said that Aronofsky tends to take one intense main performance (as he did most recently with The Wrestler) and "frames it within an unyielding study of an obsessive pursuit."

The supporting cast holds up well considering the focus is almost entirely on Portman. I only wish we got to learn more about Cassel's Thomas in terms of his motivations and treatment of Nina.

Overall, this exciting and odd little film has not only one of the strongest female performances of the year but it's also visually beautiful and the dancing is incredible.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 17


It's not often that you come across a film where everyone is perfectly cast in their respective roles -- especially a cast as large as The Lord of the Rings. Thanks to director Peter Jackson and his casting directors, fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel were treated to an enormously talented international cast.

I always respected the decision to ignore the head honchos of New Line Cinema and go with lesser known actors. Sure, we may have grown up watching Elijah Wood movies when he was a child actor or we may have been familiar with Ian McKellan and Cate Blanchett from big-budget costume dramas; however, when The Lord of the Rings finally debuted on screens, the biggest "star" of the picture (at the time) was Liv Tyler -- and she's wasn't exactly going to be filling seats. Therefore, I admire the decision to use talent over star-power. It's how it always should be.

By the time all three films were released (The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, The Two Towers in 2002, The Return of the King in 2003) the entire cast had become household names for Tolkien fans and film buffs alike. The decision to cast virtual unknowns worked entirely in the franchise's favour. There were no preconceived notions about the actors going into the film. Most of the faces were completely unfamiliar to its audience and, as a result, there weren't big name stars (like a Tom Cruise or Nic Cage) to ruin the film. It was about the character development and the actual performances. No high-priced egos here.

When most people think of fantasy films, one doesn't normally equate it with great acting. Or, at least, it's not the first thing that comes to mind. This is why, in my opinion, The Lord of the Rings stands head and shoulders well above any other film(s) of the genre and beyond. You've got McKellan, Blanchett and Wood, but you've also got Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Viggo Mortensen, Christopher Lee, Brad Dourif, Bernard Hill, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, David Wenham and ...last but definitely not least, Andy Serkis as Gollum/Smeagol (pictured above). Serkis, especially, became a household name for me and everything I've seen him in since The Lord of the Rings has not disappointed. He's one of the best and most underrated actors working today.

The cast managed to elevate the trilogy even further beyond being just another cash-grab franchise.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One
Directed By: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter

First things first: I've never read J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Therefore, I go into each film without any expectations and I can leave the theatre never feeling disappointed. However, because I'm unfamiliar with the books, I found this latest film a little hard to follow, compared to the others.

Peter Jackson managed to make all three of his The Lord of the Rings films a cohesive story. They followed one thread and worked well, both together and as individual, stand-alone films. I find that this has never been the case with the Harry Potter franchise. Granted, there are a lot of films that the screenwriters have to struggle to string together, yet for someone like me who has never read the books, it can be alienating. Each Harry Potter film has had a new director and, as a result, has a different tone and atmosphere than its predecessor, which I also think is the root cause of some of its issues. I think it makes them feel like jagged vignettes that don't quite fit together as a whole.

All that being said, Deathly Hallows is the best film in the franchise since Alfonso Cuaron directed the third instalment, The Prisoner of Azkaban. For the first time since this series first started back in 2000, I felt like things were finally starting to get interesting. It just unfortunately took six films to reach this point. After a whole lot of anti-climaxes and false starts, things are being set up for a final duel between Harry and Voldemort. The plot of Deathly Hallows is essentially all the exposition stuff that needs to get out of the way before the final film this July. We have Harry preparing to face Voldemort. We have Hermione and Ron getting closer to revealing their feelings for one another. We have Voldemort getting his hands on the (apparently very important) wand that was in Dumbledore's possession (help me out here, Potter fans. I forget what the combination of the wand, cloak of invisibility and ...that other thing ...meant). Anyway, Voldemort now has that wand and, from what I gather, that's a very, very bad thing.

Visually, the film is fantastic. The kids are no longer at Hogwarts (thank god for small miracles ...it was about time the series broke away from its formulaic plotting). It was nice seeing the three leads away from school and their friends and teachers. As a result, their travels take them to some dark and visually stunning areas of England, where Dickensian villains in plaid pants and ponytails lurk in the shadows. It was a refreshing change.

The reason this film works so well, is the acting. By far, it's the strongest film in terms of acting for this franchise. We finally see (and hear!) more of Voldemort (played by the incomparable Ralph Fiennes). I mean, here's this fantastic villain and he barely registers any screen time. Only Rowling would relegate a great bad guy like this to the background for the sake of a bunch of children and their uninteresting Hogwarts teachers. Fiennes is perfect in an early scene where he's meeting with other evil minions (including Helena Bonham Carter's Belatrix and Jason Isaac's Lucius Malfoy). He's all slitherly, creepy perfection. Even Isaac's small role as Lucius is excellent. If nothing else, this series has never been short of brilliant veteran British actors. The same can be said for Alan Rickman, reduced to a small role in this film, but still, as always, reliably wonderful. Another wonderful casting choice was David O'Hara (he of crazy Stephen in Braveheart) as the man Harry inhabits to enter the Ministry of Magic. This might not make any sense, but once you see the scene, you will know what I mean. O'Hara perfectly captured the posture and mannerisms of Harry/Daniel Radcliffe to the point where I wish Harry would stay in his body for the duration of the film. It was a wonderful, entertaining role.

Most surprising, however, are two of the three leads. I've usually been pretty hard on Emma Watson in past films (she being the Queen of Runaway Eyebrow Acting). Watching Deathly Hallows, however, I wondered if she'd taken acting lessons. She seems to have matured as an actress, going for subtlety over exaggerated reactions. She's reigned in those eyebrows and blossomed into a solid young actress. Rupert Grint has finally been allowed to move on from his previous role of comedic sidekick. He's actually given dramatic scenes and he's more than up to the task. Out of the entire series, Ron is my favourite character (and it's not just because I'm a sucker for redheads). I always thought Grint seemed like he had a good performance in him, but was never given the chance to shine. He was more than up to the task in Deathly Hallows. My problem is with Daniel Radcliffe as Harry. I find his performance uneven and far too forced. He doesn't have the natural charm and charisma of Grint or the fiery subtlety of Watson. He's nowhere near as atrocious as the actress who plays Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), but he's definitely the weakest link of the three leads.

Overall, it's an entertaining film and, as I said earlier, the strongest instalment since The Prisoner of Azkaban. In an uneven series (with formulaic plotting, unexplained plot scenarios and the most anti-climactic death scenes of main characters I've ever seen on film), Deathly Hallows promises the series will go out with a bang. Although it's essentially only half a film, the final cliffhanger scene even had me intrigued. Perfect? No. A solid set-up vehicle for the final film? Yes.


Monday, November 22, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 16


This one wasn't as tough as I expected, given the love I have for Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot. 

A few runners-up:
(1) "I am big! It's the pictures that got small."
(Sunset Blvd.)
(2) "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
(A Streetcar Named Desire)
(3) "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"
(4) The "patron saint of mediocrity" speech.
(5) "You keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."
(The Godfather Part II)

It all comes back, though, to the final scene (the final few seconds, to be exact) of Some Like It Hot. You've got Jack Lemmon, one of the masters of exaggerated facial reactions, dressed as a woman. On a speedboat. With a millionaire named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). Osgood is the one who utters the famous line: "Well, nobody's perfect."

Lemmon plays Jerry, a man on the run with his friend, Joe (Tony Curtis), after the two witness a mob murder. Lemmon's Jerry soon becomes Daphne, as the two friends decide to disguise themselves as women as a ruse to throw off the mobsters. While Curtis is off flirting with Marilyn Monroe's Sugar, Lemmon's subplot in the film involves being wooed (and proposed to) by Osgood. The two develop a charming bond (thanks in large part to the great chemistry between Lemmon and Brown), all of which culminates in a simple exchange at the very end of the film when "Daphne" reveals she's really a man.

Jerry: "Osgood, I'm gonna level with you. We can't get married at all."
Osgood: "Why not?"
Jerry: "Well, in the first place, I'm not a natural blonde."
Osgood: "Doesn't matter."
Jerry: "I smoke! I smoke all the time!"
Osgood: "I don't care."
Jerry: "Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player."
Osgood: "I forgive you."
Jerry: "I can never have children!"
Osgood: "We can adopt some."
Jerry: "But you don't understand, Osgood!"
*Jerry pulls off wig*
Jerry: "I'm a man!"
Osgood: "Well, nobody's perfect."

Why I Love This Quote: It's arguably one of the best fade-out lines in film history. Both actors are perfect in this scene, especially with Lemmon's growing exasperation as he gently tries to break his engagement to Brown without revealing the fact that he's a man. Brown's nonchalance and unconditional love is unwavering with each new shocking revelation. What is so incredible about the scene (and the Daphne/Osgood relationship, in general) is the suggestion that Jerry (as Daphne) was happy in his new role as a woman. This is evident in the scenes where Daphne is being wooed by her rich millionaire. Jerry, as Daphne, is thoroughly enjoying the attention. A later conversation between Jerry and Joe reveals that Jerry has accepted Osgood's marriage proposal and is smitten with his new beau and his big, shiny diamond ring. When Joe asks him why he'd want to marry a man, Jerry responds: "For security!" A movie that started out about two men evading gangsters turned into something much more interesting: Jerry embracing his new feminine way of life.

Interesting trivia: Co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond wrote the line the night before the scene was shot.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Movie Review: 127 Hours

127 Hours (2010)
Starring: James Franco
Written and Directed By: Danny Boyle

It's a rare Hollywood movie that will (1) only feature one main character and (2) manage to make that one main character interesting enough to sustain viewer interest for the entire two hour running time.

The reason 127 Hours works so well is thanks to the partnership of actor and director: James Franco and Danny Boyle.

Hot off last year's Oscar win for Best Director (Slumdog Millionaire), Boyle looks at the true story of Aron Ralston (Franco) and his (mis)adventure in the summer of 2003. Backpacking alone across an isolated canyon in Utah, Ralston makes the near-fatal error of jumping across a boulder wedged in between the canyon's crevice. As Ralston falls, so does the boulder, pinning his right hand between the boulder and the canyon wall.

The film has been much-talked about since its debut on the film festival circuit in the past few months. The main reason for all the talk? The now infamous arm-cutting scene (complete with broken bones and bloody tendons). Although that scene is definitely not for the squeamish, the film is so much more than a violent act of desperation. It is, essentially, an ode to survival and the endurance of the human spirit.

Like all of Boyle's films, the visuals are compelling. All the oranges, yellows and blues practically make you feel as though you are right there with Ralston, in the light and shadow of Utah's canyons. However, even more interesting than the aesthetics, is how Boyle chose to structure the story of Ralston's lonely hours trapped in the canyon. Boyle utilizes the technology Ralston carried with him (he takes pictures of his mangled hand and videotapes a running commentary of each day of his misfortune), which allows the viewer to actually hear Ralston voice his misery and fading optimism. His dehydration and desperation result in interesting flashbacks, as well as hallucinations in which Ralston imagines his loved ones are with him in the canyon. This is arguably one of Boyle's greatest and most challenging films.

James Franco is one of the most interesting young actors to come out of Hollywood in years. He has moved well past his earlier career days in the cheesy Spider-Man films and has since built a solid resume of small indie films and challenging roles. Franco makes Ralston a charming and surprisingly sensitive anti-hero. His seemingly selfish behaviour in not informing family or friends that he'd be taking off alone into dangerous territory is played off as a genuine mistake made by an adventurous spirit. Watching Franco go from optimism to almost complete defeat is wonderful to watch. I'm a sucker for a great performance, especially one that requires the actor to relate to the audience all on their own, just them and the camera. It's through Franco's performance that the audience truly understands his will to survive, his realization of his desire for a child of his own and his genuine repentance over not telling his mother often enough how much he loves her. But, the truly great thing about Franco's performance is that he doesn't actually need to say the words at all. He's able to convey those feelings through body language and facial expressions.

While there is a strong supporting cast (including Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Clemence Poesy and Treat Williams), it all comes back to Franco.

In an otherwise mostly weak movie season, 127 Hours is a breath of fresh simply for being an incredibly well-made and well-acted film. For just under two hours, you are guaranteed a tense, gripping an emotional film experience.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 15


I love Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp or Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.

I also love a lot of characters from recent films that aren't necessarily deemed classics: Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation or Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds.

But, in the end, it all comes back to Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.

There's no way to make this sound cool, so I'm just going to put it out there: I'm an Indy fangirl. Tried and true. What can I say, I'm a sucker for history-loving archaeologists who wear fedoras, carry a whip and can balance his brain with brawn.

Harrison Ford may not be the world's greatest actor. Like Kevin Costner or Bill Paxton, he's one of those regular joe's you love simply for being reliable and likeable.

But, Harrison Ford was born to play Indiana Jones.

At the age of six my parents showed me Raiders of the Lost Ark. The experience pretty much solidified my love of film (yes, at that young an age). It pretty much captured everything a person could want in a film: action, excitement, romance, comedy and a strong script. Unlike your typical, generic action film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (and, later, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) went above and beyond what one might expect in a film of the action genre. I wanted to be Indiana Jones and I actually credit the films with inspiring my love for history.

Under the guidance of director Steven Spielberg, Ford made Indy a brave, loyal and charming protagonist: one of those good guys who is impossible to dislike. Ford's chemistry with co-stars Karen Allen, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies makes it all the better.

The trilogy and 2008 sequel was a throwback to the western serials of the 1930s: those weekly adventures that would end on a cliffhanger. Raiders and Crusade are both perfect homages to those films (Temple of Doom and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls to a much lesser extent).

Indiana Jones is everything you could want in an action figure. They just don't make those heroes like they used too.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 14


It's rare to find a sequel to a film that either equals or surpasses the excellence of its predecessor.

Fans of The Godfather films are usually divided into two camps: (1) Those who cite the original one as the crowning achievement of the series or (2) those who believe that the sequel, simply titled The Godfather: Part II, is greater than the original due largely to the presence of Robert DeNiro and his role as young Vito Corleone.

The Godfather: Part II is my favourite film sequel. It continues the Corleone saga with a well-structured and tightly wound script. It boasts some of the trilogy's greatest scenes and proves that sequels don't always suck. Instead of appearing as a cash grab or an attempt to capitalize on the success of the first film, The Godfather: Part II is a legitimate and engrossing continuation of a dark and fascinating family drama. Gangsters never looked or sounded so badass. Forget The Sopranos: who could be scarier than Don Vito and Michael Corleone? They would crush Tony Soprano with their thumbs and those classy suits.

That being said, The Godfather: Part II is not my favourite film of the trilogy. My heart still belongs to the first film, but I'll save that debate for another day.

All in all, The Godfather: Part II is likely the most flawless film sequel you will ever come across (which makes the uneven The Godfather: Part III all the more tragic because it ruined what would have been the rarest of occurrences in the world of cinema: a perfect trilogy).

I believe the reason The Godfather: Part II makes such a great sequel is because it was made in the days before overkill. Back in the day when, for the most part, films were made for film fans. Back in the day when sequels weren't churned out year by year, with no apparent purpose or any evident effort. The fact that The Godfather: Part II is just as solid and well-made as its predecessor speaks volumes to that fact.

Sure, T2: Judgement Day was a great sequel that improved on the first film. Ditto The Dark Knight the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Some might even argue that The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers trumps The Fellowship of the Ring.

But they aren't on the same level as The Godfather: Part II.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Movie Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2010)
Directed By: Mark Romanek
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley
Based on the Novel By: Kazuo Ishiguro

Having never read the novel on which the film is based, I thought the trailer for Never Let Me Go looked powerful, if vague. I think that's why I loved the trailer so much. Unlike most film trailers that give away the entire plot of the film they are advertising in under three minutes, the trailer for Never Let Me Go leaves you intrigued by how little it reveals. Well, for those unfamiliar with Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, at least.

The film introduces us to Kathy H (Carey Mulligan) who, in the opening scene is 28 years old and, through narration, is taking the audience back to the unusual events that occurred to the students at a Hailsham boarding house in England in 1978. As child, young Kathy H befriends two fellow classmates, the friendly but untrustworthy, Ruth (Keira Knightley) and the shy, awkward loner, Tommy (Andrew Garfield). Told by their headmistress that all Hailsham students are "special", they grow up without any family connections or a clear understanding about what their place is in society, having never been off school grounds. I remember Peter Howell's review in the Toronto Star and how he mentioned that the sinister Orwellian language with such words as "donors", "carers" and 'completion" all lend an ominous and unsettling atmosphere to the film.

The film is almost ridiculously gorgeous to look at. English landscape is always a beautiful sight to behold and, despite its dark and tragic plot revelations, it remains so. The colour is muted so that everything appears green or yellow; mellow colours for a leisurely-paced film.

Never Let Me Go is not your standard sci-fi film. Like George Orwell's 1984, it's not necessarily about the role of authority figures or government standards, but the human desire to survive, thrive and love one another. The film (and, I presume, the book) doesn't delve into why these things are being done to the students of Hailsham or how exactly they "came to be." It's just an accepted fact of life that this is the way things are in the world. Without the background information on the origins of Hailsham and other similar boarding houses, the audience is allowed to solely focus on the three central characters and their struggle to understand the meaning of life and their role in it, however brief.

The reason the unusual plot plays out so well on screen is because of the stellar casting. Carey Mulligan is one of the top five young actresses working today. She gives a lovely performance as Kathy H, giving her character quiet strength and sad, world weary eyes. Even though we know so little about Kathy H's background, it doesn't matter because Mulligan manages to make her so likeable and sympathetic. Andrew Garfield nearly steals the film as Tommy, the gangly and shy love-interest of Kathy H (although he settles for a relationship with Ruth). This is my first time seeing Garfield in a film and I was impressed by his stuttering, twitchy Tommy. I'll be pulling for him this Oscar season for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. There were two or three occasions in the film where I got teary-eyed and it was all thanks for Garfield and his performance. As for Keira Knightley, I'll be the first to admit I'm not her biggest fan; however, I was impressed with the fact that she chose a role different from her usual historical snarky-heroine screen portrayals. She actually gave a nuanced performance as Ruth, which is no easy accomplishment since Ruth is a difficult character to love.

In this early stage of the Oscar race, Never Let Me Go has a legitimate chance at some major nominations, especially considering we are in for another year of 10 Best Picture nominations. I just hope that, after all the other hyped films that will come out in the next couple of months, critics and voters will remember Never Let Me Go - a quiet, powerful, philosophical and compelling film. I hope it doesn't get lost in the chaos.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Movie Review: Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In (Sweden, 2008)
Directed By: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson

I've been a little behind on my entries, but not my movie-watching. Last weekend, I finally got around to seeing Let the Right One In; that Swedish vampire film that everyone was talking about two years ago.

What I didn't realize was that, more than anything else, Let the Right One In is a coming-of-age story. The fact that young Oskar's new friend, Eli, is a nocturnal bloodsucker is beside the point.

Twelve-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is shy, awkward and mercilessly bullied at school. At night, he spends time by himself at the playground outside his apartment building. There he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the girl who has just moved into the apartment next door with a man she claims is her father. When asked what her age is, Eli replies, "twelve-ish." Despite the fact that it's the dead of winter, Eli wears only short-sleeved shirts outside, has cold hands, pale skin and appears older and wiser beyond her years. Oskar is immediately drawn to her and the two develop their friendship in the little playground at night, which is the only time Eli can come out and play.

Let the Right One In is a slow-burning film. Its opening shot is of falling snow, without any soundtrack. Everyone speaks in hushed tones and Oskar and Eli must overcome many obstacles before becoming genuine friends. It's more about the coming-of-age of two marginalized children than horror film (although there are unsettling scenes of blood and gore). The more you get to know Oskar and Eli, the more you feel for their sad situations: his because of the constant bullying he faces, hers because of her inability to connect to humans and violent desire for blood. Despite the supernatural situation, you want their friendship to endure. Somehow.

It's an intelligent film, made for audiences who love  character development and emotional connection mixed in with their horror. It's completely unique and unlike any vampire film you've seen before (it even twists around some vampire folklore to make it seem fresh and original). The fact that it effectively manages to combine gothic horror with tragic realism, is no easy accomplishment. I was surprised how affecting, tragic and emotionally charged a vampire film could be when put in the right hands.

One of the things I can't get over is how beautiful the film looks. Visually, it's better than the large majority of what you'd see in the cinema. The colours are darkened, in keeping with the atmospheric mood, and it makes Stockholm look like a beautiful winter wonderland. The darkened colours only serve to make the blood stand out even more, whether it's splashed on the snowy sidewalk or a dirty basement floor.

I'm not usually the biggest fan of child actors. They tend to over-emote and, because of their age, don't necessarily pick up on the subtleties of the development of their characters. Hedebrant and Leandersson go above and beyond what you'd expect from a child actor. There were times I forgot I was watching two pre-teens instead of two full-fledged adults. Both Hedebrant and Leandersson convey their loneliness and world-wearniess with their sad eyes. Their chemistry onscreen is also what makes their performances work so well. You can see their yearning for connection to one another. And, despite their obvious differences in the lives they lead, they are both looking for the same things.

Love story, horror film and social commentary wrapped in one, Let the Right One In will be one of the most powerful, beautiful coming-of-age tales you are ever likely to see. It will stay with you long after the film has finished. I now plan on reading John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel on which the film is based.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 13


Not gonna lie: I have a ton of films I could have just as easily chosen as my favourite guilty pleasure film. Other potential choices: Hook (1991), Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1988), Twister (1996), Beetlejuice (1988) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991).

But, in keeping with the "holiday spirit" of Halloween, I'll go with The Lost Boys (1987); that crazy little vampire movie from schlock-master director Joel Schumacher. Starring some of the biggest young stars of the 1980s, the film's popularity has endured, probably thanks in large part to its incredibly quotable dialogue. It also has a little bit of everything to keep audiences interested; horror, romance and comedy. Although there are some who argue the film hasn't aged well (you only need look to Rotten Tomatoes to find the evidence), I couldn't disagree more. If nothing else, it's a time capsule of a decade when big hair reigned supreme, kids listened to cassettes and teen movies weren't always ruled by raging hormones and nudity.

The Lost Boys is its own brand of fun. Say what you want about the film, but there isn't another movie quite like it. It's over-the-top, over-stylized and completely ridiculous. But it never pretends to be something it is not and for that it gets brownie points in my book. It's the Batman Forever of vampire films, taking the mythology around the "creatures of the night" and throwing in laughs along the way. Completely CGI-free, The Lost Boys instead relies on excellent make-up and actual stunt work.

The plot is straight-forward: Michael (Jason Patric), Sam (Corey Haim) and their single-mom, Lucy (Dianne Wiest), move to Santa Carla for a fresh start. Within hours of arriving, Michael makes enemies with David (Kiefer Sutherland), the head of a motorcycle-riding vampire gang. Sam enlists the help of the Frog brothers, Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Alan (Jamison Newlander), to help him save his brother, Michael, from becoming a vampire. Self-proclaimed vampire hunters, the Frog brothers are the teenaged dimwit equivalent of Van Helsing.

Watch it for the cheese-tastic soundtrack, the vibrant clothing, 1980s pop culture references and some great vampire fight scenes. Did I mention the two Corey's were in it?


This almost topped The Lost Boys and, in many ways, it's a much more entertaining film. But, you know. The Halloween theme and all.

Speed (1994) was my favourite action film as a child. That bomb-on-bus, highway-jumping action sequences just don't come out of Hollywood anymore. Granted, CGI has never been better that it is today, but Speed rarely (if at all) had to rely on any of that and it still manages to be more exciting (and openly ludicrous) than the large majority of action films being released today. It's almost as though the film were self-aware: instead of turning away from its outrageous plot, it embraces it and puts its actors through violent encounters with elevators, buses and subways just for the hell of it. Why not?

Reasons I love Speed: (1) Keanu Reeves, never better. (2) Dennis Hopper and his nine fingers. (3) The troubled transit systems in Los Angeles. (4) For keeping viewer interest when a large portion of the film takes place on a bus. (5) It's ridiculous and awesome.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 12


With all the wonderful Disney and Pixar films out there to choose from, it would seem hard to pick just one. For me, though, it all comes back to the 2003 Pixar classic, Finding Nemo.

I still remember seeing a late screening in theatres (to avoid all those kids who would have talked over the whole thing) and I was crying three minutes into the film. Single-dad clownfish, Marlin (Albert Brooks), loses his son, Nemo (Alexander Gould), somewhere along Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Along the way, Marlin befriends a blue tang fish suffering from short-term memory loss named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) and the two embark on an epic underwater search.

It's themes of unconditional love, loyal friendships and family values, Finding Nemo is an intelligent little film. Don't dismiss it as a kids animated flick. It's one of those rare films that rise above that classification. Andrew Stanton continues to write and direct instant Pixar classics.

In terms of visuals, nothing surpasses the brilliant blues and oranges of Finding Nemo. It was like watching an underwater special on the Discovery Channel. Although WALL*E came close, in terms of animation, Pixar has not yet topped Finding Nemo.

The end result is a smart, funny and engaging film for both children and adults. Pixar continues to reinvent both the children and animation genres.

Friday, October 1, 2010

In Memoriam: Tony Curtis (June 3, 1925-September 29, 2010)

Another Hollywood legend has passed away.

It made me realize how many of the classic actors of the 1950s and 1960s are slowly disappearing. The death of Curtis, at the age of 85, is much like the loss of Paul Newman last year: it reminds us that the "golden days" of Hollywood are rapidly disappearing with the deaths of its legends. Their old film stories and anecdotes are going with them.

Curtis was famous for openly sharing his experiences as an actor and a celebrity. Whether you believed his stories or not (and there are many who accuse him of being an outright liar), he acted as though he were an open book. Curtis wrote books on the subject of celebrity and filmmaking (most recently, 2009's The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie, something I can't wait to read once it comes out in paperback). He fanned the flames of gossip when he claimed that Monroe miscarried their child (the product of a brief fling) soon after filming wrapped on the 1959 film. He was famously married to Janet Leigh and is father to actress Jamie Lee Curtis. He essentially put all his cards on the table, regardless of whether you liked him or not. He was a classy actor, even when sharing the most explicit details of his life in Hollywood.

I'm kind of ashamed to admit I've only seen three films in his extensive resume. The Defiant Ones, which I saw on TCM a good five years ago (I'm due for a re-watch), Spartacus and one of my all-time favourite films, Some Like It Hot. I saw the latter film for the first time only last year, when I bought it on a whim. It really lives up to its honour of the Best American Comedy (bestowed by the American Film Institute). As Joe/Josephine, Curtis is paired with two wonderful co-stars in Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. When I first bought the film, I watched it twice in one week (no lie!) and a total of three times in that first month. While every aspect of the film is wonderful, Curtis' performance is one of the highlights.

Curtis was also a talented painter and was technologically savvy. He knew how to communicate with fans in the age of the Internet. You can check out his official website (run by Curtis Enterprises). He still offered to mail autographs to fans (a snail mail address is included on his website) and all of his most recent paintings were displayed in his online art gallery. Curtis was also the founder of Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, a non-profit organization (started in 2003) which rehabilitates homeless and abused horses. His website claims that it has saved the lives or more than 500 horses.

His memorial service (according to his blog, run by Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary) is on October 4th and will be open to the public to allow both family and fans to pay their respects. I was really surprised by this ...it's so rare for an open memorial service for a celebrity).

Regardless of your opinion of Curtis, he was a charismatic screen legend and, up until now, one of the few who were left from an era long gone. Hollywood is now short one more star.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 11


I haven't seen as many silent films as I probably should, but the ones I have seen have been incredible. From The Great Train Robbery (1903) to German Expressionist films such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919) and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), I've always been fascinated by the cinema's original masterpieces.

There is something beautiful, yet eerie and somewhat unsettling, about relying solely on silent, black and white images of long-dead actors running around with exaggerated make-up smeared on their faces. Acting was so different before the days of the "talkies." Actors were left to rely on their ability to express every human emotion through facial reactions. An audience couldn't hear an anguished cry or a laugh; the actor would have to be able to convey that with their face or body language.

I have two favourite silent films that stand out more than the others, but for different reasons. The first is a German Expressionist film (a great article on the definition and descriptions of the stylistic techniques used in German Expressionist films can be found here).

In 1922, German director F.W. Murnau (Faust) released, arguably, his most influential film. Nosferatu remains one of the most enduring horror films ever made. Murnau bought the movie rights to Bram Stoker's Dracula, until Stoker's wife officially took over the rights for the novel after her husbands death. Instead of scrapping the film altogether, Murnau and his screenwriters put their heads together and changed just enough of the details in their film to escape copyright infringement. Dracula was now Count Orlock (Max Schreck) and The Vampire (or vampyre) was now prowling the streets of Bremen, Germany instead of Victorian London.

The film is downright creepy. I saw it for the first time more than five years ago. I caught it on TCM late one night around Halloween. I was struck by how untraditional a vampire Count Orlock was compared to the elegantly caped and seductive Dracula. By contrast, Orlock was reptilian in appearance and socially awkward. It helped that actor Max Schreck was terrifying, both in his exaggeratedly slow movements and his actual physical appearance. I admire how Murnau and the cast and crew took a traditional story, gave it a German spin and made it more terrifying than any other vampire film based off of Stoker's novel.

The film is an absolute piece of art. Just watch the trailer and judge for yourself.

My second choice is City Lights (1931), Charlie Chaplin's greatest and most affecting film. Most people cite Modern Times (1936) as the definitive Chaplin, but in my opinion, nothing beats the wonderful comedy and pathos of City Lights.

Although the "talkies" had been around since 1927 (with the release of The Jazz Singer, for those keeping track), Chaplin continued to make silent films well into the late-1930s. Chaplin had a face made for the silent screen. Not only was he a gifted actor and comedian, but he also directed each of his films, along with composing their scores and writing the scripts. Chaplin was the full package and his talent was never more on display that with City Lights.

The Tramp, Chaplin's onscreen alter ego, tries to woo a poor, blind girl by doing everything he possibly can to raise money for her so she can have an operation that will restore her sight. The Blind Girl (Virginia Cherill) has no idea who her young suitor is or why he is being so kind to her, but she welcomes his attentions thinking he's a handsome millionaire. This film was recommended to me by a friend who promised me that the ending would make me cry "happy tears" and it definitely followed through on that promise. While not as visually stunning as something like Nosferatu, Chaplin still manages to make City Lights one of the greatest films of all time, for its brilliant comedy and touching grand finale.

For those who don't mind being spoiled, here's the final scene of City Lights, when the Blind Girl realizes who that Tramp is and what he has done for her and the restoration of her sight.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 10


This one is pretty impossible to answer. What is considered a classic? Anything prior to 1975? Or nothing later than 1960? My instinct is to put The Godfather (1972) but it would make a better choice for one of the later options. Same goes for Some Like It Hot (1959) and On the Waterfront (1954), both of which I will save for later entries.

There are so many possible answers, but instead of agonizing over it I'll pick the first one that comes to mind and that will be that.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Directed By: Billy Wilder
Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Erich von Stroheim

I wrote a film review for Sunset Blvd. back when I first started this blog. You can read it here if you're interested.

I love when a classic film lives up to all the hype that surrounds it. Sunset Blvd. manages to be an original, crisp and fascinating look at Hollywood life and, despite the passage of time, it's still completely relevant in our current celebrity-obsessed culture. It's one of those rare films that reveal new subtleties and layers in both plot and character development with each repeat viewing.

The first time I watched this film (which I purchased on a whim only last year), I couldn't believe how how flawlessly executed it was (Billy Wilder was a master of story structure and visuals). It's an unusual blend of film noir and black comedy, giving the viewer a backstage glimpse of lives filled with betrayal, deceit and the emptiness of wealth and fame. Gloria Swanson's portrayal of Norma Desmond, the aging silent screen star who longs for a comeback, is campy, terrifying and tragic all at once.

Visually cinematic (floating dead bodies and slow descents from grand marble staircases included) and clever in dialogue ("She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn't know it, you're too young. In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later, he strangled himself with it!"), Sunset Blvd. will never stop being the significant and powerful silver screen classic it has become. It also has one of my favourite final scenes in a film, ever.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Movie Review: The Town

THE TOWN (2010)
Directed By: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper

There's been a lot of hype swirling around Ben Affleck's sophomore directorial effort, The Town. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week and has been earning rave reviews across the board in critic's circles ever since the trailer debuted a couple of months ago. As a result, I went into the film expecting a fresh, original take on the tired genre of bank heist thrillers. Perhaps my expectations were set too high, as I wound up leaving the theatre wondering what all the fuss was about.

Based on Chuck Hogan's novel, Prince of Thieves, the film follows Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and his group of highly skilled bank robbers terrorizing Charlestown, a blue-collar area of Boston that claims to be the world's capital for carjackings, bank robberies and kidnappings. Donning creepy Halloween masks (different ones for each elaborate robbery), Doug's group leave behind no indication as to their identities, leaving law enforcement, led by FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), baffled and frustrated. When Doug and his right-hand man James "Jem" Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) make the rash decision of taking bank teller Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage to use as leverage, they inadvertently set off a chain of events that begins with Doug falling head over heels for Claire and culminating in a violent confrontation with law enforcement at Fenway Park.

In terms of visuals and technique, Affleck definitely excels in the director's chair. Like his 2007 debut Gone Baby Gone, The Town has a raw and grainy quality. It's almost as though Affleck is paying homage to Clint Eastwood's work in the directors chair. Affleck portrays his beloved Boston as an overcast, violent and ruthless place, where death can come at any moment, to both criminal or innocent bystander alike. He uses both tight close-ups and jarring action sequences, including an excellent car chase where Doug, Jem and the gang are wearing their now infamous nun outfits and toting machine guns.

For his second feature film, Affleck made the dubious choice of casting himself in the starring role (when I first saw the trailer for the film during the summer, I remember thinking "Was your brother too busy to be in it?"). Affleck lacks the talent, screen presence and charisma of his younger brother, Casey. With his thick Bostonian accent, Affleck's portrayal of Doug is bland and, as a result, it's hard to care about the fate of his character. He doesn't give any indication as to why his character, Doug, is considered the brains of the operation; nor does it give us a real reason to root for him, especially since he continues to cruelly deceive Claire, the woman he supposedly loves. In fact, it feels like Affleck is simply recycling his role as Matt Damon's asshole friend in Good Will Hunting.

The supporting cast all suffer from severely underwritten roles. Each character feels like the stock characters that always figure prominently in action films of this type. Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite (two really great actors) do what they can with what little is given to them as Doug's imprisoned father and the Irish gangster, Fergie Colm, respectively. Jon Hamm is awkward and miscast as FBI Agent Adam Frawley and his character is so wooden and appears to be cut from the typical movie mould of "arrogant, persistent cop". You don't care whether he catches Doug or not, nor do you understand why Frawley seems to be taking all these bank robberies so personally.

I was disappointed (but, sadly, not surprised) by the lack of a solid female role in the film. There are two women in the movie: Claire the bank teller and Krista, Jem's younger sister and Doug's original love interest. While Rebecca Hall and Blake Lively give decent performances with their roles, there is no real depth or strength in their characters. Claire is sweet and virtuous and falls for Doug as quickly as he falls for her. Unbeknownst to Claire, Doug is one of her kidnappers and he continues to unfairly keep her in the dark as to his real identity. She comes across as nothing more than pawn in the big, elaborate game being played by the boys. Krista, on the other hand, has about 10 minutes of screen time and, within that short time frame, she's either high on drugs, ignoring her baby daughter or begging Doug to run away with her.

The only real standout in the cast is Jeremy Renner. He's superb as the hot-headed, trigger-happy punk, Jem, who won't hesitate to kill anyone who stands in his way. With his intense glare and violent disposition, Renner keeps the audience on edge because you never know what ill-conceived idea he'll come up with next. He's essentially a tightly-wound ball of violence and anger. Although, like the other characters, little is known about Jem outside of the main plot, I kept thinking how much more interesting the film would have been had he been the central character. After his Oscar-nominated performance last year in The Hurt Locker, Renner's role in The Town only proves he was no one hit wonder.

When I left the theatre, the only three things I really loved about the film was the Fenway Park shootout, those scary nun masks and Jeremy Renner. Those three reasons alone are worth the price of admission.

Affleck likely has a long future in directing and he's more than capable of telling a good story. Here's hoping his next effort involves a plot with actual characters. Final verdict on The Town? An entertaining way to spend two hours but don't fall for all the hype.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Classic Film Review: Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Directed By:  Robert Aldrich
Starring: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten

"You're a vile, sorry little bitch!"
~Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis)~

I've caught glimpses of this film on TCM off and on over the years but had never sat down to watch the film in its entirety. Over the years I've slowly been working my way through Bette Davis' lengthy filmography. The woman had a long, illustrious career in Hollywood for a reason: she was a wonderful actress who never conformed to Hollywood's standards of beauty. Like Katherine Hepburn, Davis was her own person and no other actress in Hollywood could recreate her blend of talent and dark glamour. With her smokey voice and intense glare, Davis has fascinated me ever since I saw Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? when I was only 12. It was only a matter of time before I finally made my way onto watching Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte.

Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) is an aging recluse, living in her deceased father's secluded house with only her housekeeper, Velma (Agnes Moorehead) for company. A wealthy spinster, Charlotte is the subject of gossip in the small town in Louisiana where she lives. Charlotte has lived a life devoid of human contact for nearly 40 years, after the brutal axe murder of the love of her life, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), a married womanizer who promised Charlotte he'd run away with her. On the night of John's murder, Charlotte is found covered in his blood and, although she is never formally charged with murder, everyone in town suspects she did the deed out of anger and jealousy when John refused to leave with her after all. Later on, when Charlotte's old plantation house (which acts as a shrine devoted to both her overbearing father and John) is threatened with demolition she enlists the help of her cousin, Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), her last living relation whom she hasn't seen since the night of John's murder. Miriam even brings along Dr. Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten) to assess the mental stability of Charlotte. Along the way, there are twists and revelations that culminate into a dramatic and violent conclusion.

By early 1964, director Robert Aldrich had planned on re-teaming with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the feuding stars of his 1962 hit, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Crawford soon dropped out of the project (reportedly due to an illness) and Davis was paired with Olivia de Havilland instead; an actress known for her gentle portrayals of sweet and virtuous women (from Maid Marion in The Adventures of Robin Hood to Melanie in Gone with the Wind). It was a strange casting choice, putting de Havilland in the role of Charlotte's conniving cousin, Miriam; however, under Aldrich's direction de Havilland made her characterization of Miriam worthy of Charlotte's insults (see opening quote).

The film is part Southern gothic, part psychological thriller; something Aldrich excelled at when directing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and really capitalized on with Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte. The prologue of the film, which shockingly depicts the violent murder of John Mayhew, was incredibly chilling and graphic for a movie released in 1964. It's not hard to see why this would have upset audiences back in the day. It could still easily have the same effect on viewers today, even those desensitized by today's violent film standards. Not everything is constantly dark and violent, however, as the film manages to both amuse and terrify in equal measure. Witnessing Davis standing on her porch, pointing a rifle at trespassers and yelling at them in her thick Louisianna accent is downright campy and her performance is reason alone to check out the film. Yet, on a darker note, the longer Miriam and Drew remain in her house, the more erratic and dangerously unhinged Charlotte becomes.

A genuine whodunit, Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte is an eerie, violent and schlocky film blessed with two wonderful actresses in starring roles. As the film goes on, it gets progressively creepy and unsettling (example, the twisted nursery rhyme made up by townsfolk who believe Charlotte was the murderess: "Chop chop, Sweet Charlotte/Chop chop till he's dead/Chop chop Sweet Charlotte/Chop off his hand and head"). The film is over-the-top but very satisfying, although its main fault may be that it borrows too heavily from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Despite its campy and outrageous plot, this film will sit with you long after it's over.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Movie Review: Barney's Version (2010)

Directed By: Richard J. Lewis
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver and Bruce Greenwood

I went to a Toronto International Film Festival gala last night which was a nice surprise considering I hadn't expected to attend TIFF at all this year (too much school overload). Yet, lo and behold, free tickets to a much-buzzed about Canadian indie landed in my lap.

Based on the novel by Canadian author Mordecai Richler, Barney's Version follows the life of Barney Panofsky, an alcoholic, cigar-chomping womanizer who has three ex-wives, a string of broken friendships and an eccentric elderly father. Like Richler's novel, the plot travels through both the highs and lows (and there are a lot of lows) of Barney's life between the ages of 28 to 65. The only things that appear to truly matter to Barney are the Montreal Canadiens hockey team, his brutally frank father and a woman named Miriam.

I didn't know what to expect going into the movie. As it turns out, the trailer for the film is quite misleading as it portrays Barney's Version as an outright comedy about a middle-aged man, the women he both loves and leaves and his kooky father. There's no real indication of the bleak vision and tone that permeates the film. It's actually an honest look at a flawed human being making very human mistakes, often with tragic and fatal consequences. Barney is actually a miserable, often self-loathing man full of residual anger and depression. It's not all a barrel of laughs. Barney struggles in his relationships with women and is even accused of the murder of a friend.

Barney's Version is an unflinching portrayal of a man in a perpetual state of decline. Barney is a man who never seemed to actually be "on top" at any point in his life. When the audience first meets him, he's a mixture of alcohol-fueled resentment and wicked one-liners; a sad old man with one too many tragedies in his life (many of which were self-inflicted).

Right from the opening sequence the viewer is at the mercy of Barney's fragmented memory. The film opens with Barney as a lonely 65-year-old trying to reconnect with the love of his life. As disjointed memories of his younger days both spent traveling Europe and living his later life in Montreal invade his thoughts, the viewer is left wondering how exactly Barney became Barney. His self-destructive behaviour makes for a compelling character study. Barney's Version truly is a grown up film tackling adult issues.

As Barney Panofsky, Paul Giamatti is an early front-runner in the Best Actor category, for those keeping tabs on this years Oscar race. If put in the hands of a lesser actor, Barney could have been a loathsome curmudgeon, undeserving of any sympathy from the viewer. It's hard to imagine loving a man with such an unhealthy and selfish lifestyle; however, Giamatti makes him a likeable anti-hero who is trying to get by on a day-to-day basis while systematically destroying those around him by his mistakes.

Giamatti benefits from a really strong supporting cast, specifically from his main leading lady, British actress Rosamund Pike. As Miriam, Barney's third wife and the love of his life, Pike is nothing short of radiant. Pike makes Miriam more than just a beautiful face; she's the strong-willed, faithful and gentle centre of Barney's erratic life. Without her, Barney would have faltered long ago. Despite their differences in personality, Miriam and Barney work so well as a couple struggling with marriage because Giamatti and Pike work so well alongside one another.

The rest of the supporting cast is just as stellar. Minnie Driver, as the Second Mrs. Panofsky, is hilariously shallow and crass. Canadian actors Scott Speedman and Bruce Greenwood are both charming in their roles as Barney's best friend, Boogie, and Blair, Barney's rival for Miriam's affections, respectively. There is even a memorable cameo from homegrown talent Paul Gross, who appears as an actor playing a Mountie in Barney's television series, O'Malley of the North, in a nod to his days on Due South. Dustin Hoffman nearly steals the film out from under everyone's feet as Barney's raucous, inappropriate father, Izzy, a retired police officer from the Montreal Police Department who spends his days drinking, sleeping with prostitutes and telling people about his exploits and misadventures as a cop.

Despite the strong supporting characters, the attention always goes back to Barney. How much do we really know about this bundle of violent emotions?

In the end, the viewer is left overwhelmed by the fates for many of the people in Barney's life. How much of it is the actual truth and how much of it is simply Barney's version of the truth? And, does it matter?

As Mordecai Richler himself said about his protagonist, Barney Panofsky: "He's not automatically sympathetic, so it's up to your own cunning or craft as a writer to involve the reader with him because the novel wouldn't work otherwise."

Considering Richler worked on an early version of the script before his untimely death in 2001, I'd say the success he had with creating Barney in his novel translated just as well onto the silver screen.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 9


I've always loved film scores. I believe they can add a lot to power of specific scenes. It's tough to only come up with one, so I'll list a few that immediately come to mind.

-Nick Cave for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
-Howard Shore for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
-Trevor Jones & Randy Edelman for The Last of the Mohicans (1991)
-John Williams for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
-Hans Zimmer for Gladiator (2000)
-James Horner for Titanic (1997)
-James Horner for Braveheart (1995)
-James Horner for Legends of the Fall (1994)
-Michael Kamen for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
-Gustavo Santaolalla for Brokeback Mountain (2005)

-Abel Korzeniowski & Shigeru Umebayashi for A Single Man (2009)

-Ennio Morricone for Cinema Paradiso (1989)